[Bolivia] 23 Days in South America III: La Paz

Day 2: Red Cap Walking Tour of La Paz àValle de la Luna à Gustu
La Paz came alive on our final full day in the city. Our senses were flooded with taxi horns, trufi exhaust, and loitering crowds. We chose to spend our day with a walking tour through the city with the fantastic Red Cap Walking Tours, which offers free tours with an optional gratuity.

A street near Mercado Rodriguez, La Paz

The tour began in front of San Pedro Prison, a prison notorious for its corruption and, oddly enough, luxury. Within the heavily guarded walls, inmates have formed a hierarchical community. Inmates have jobs inside the prison, which allow them to buy or rent accommodation for them and their families within the complex. According to our tour guide, the unimaginable wealth of some convicts arise from trafficking cocaine into and out of the prison, as well as holding guided tours for tourists of the prison. These highly illegal activities are often overlooked by the prison guards, who in turn are heavily bribed by a cut of the profits.

Mercado Rodriguez, La Paz.

The walking tour then led us through Mercado Rodriguez, the largest local market in central La Paz, where we were greeted with never-before-seen varieties of giant corn and countless species of potatoes. The market is a popular locale for cholitas, indigenous women who are characteristically dressed in bowler hats and puffed skirts, remnants of the aristocratic fashion of medieval Spain. These women are traditionally from rural areas and were, for a long time, discriminated against in La Paz. Nowadays, however, they are increasingly embraced as part of the fabric of La Paz and Bolivia, and the shifting social attitudes mean that they are integrated into everyday life. Indeed, there are even weekly cholita wrestling matches in El Alto!

A cholita shops in Mercado Rodriguez, La Paz.

Darting between dashing vehicles, we reached Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches’ Market, where dried llama foetuses hang from storefronts and are used as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for her blessings. Occasions such as the opening of a construction site are often marked by the burial of such tokens. Making our way down towards the centre, we passed by colourful stalls where ancient Aymaran traditions, such as fortune telling with coca leaves, were still being performed. Stores lining the alleyways hawked trinkets and talismans which would bring us good fortune, happiness, and love.

Dried llama foetuses and other trinkets in a store in Mercado de las Brujas, La Paz.

Stopping briefly for exotic juices and salteñas (a Bolivian pastry filled with meat and potatoes), we then reached Plazo Murillo, the central square which is home to the Presidential Palace and House of Congress. We were struck by the police blockades set up on all four sides of the plaza, the result of anti-government protests earlier in the year. The plaza was the key rallying site for political events and coups, marking the unstable political history of Bolivia. Bolivia has experienced at least 190 governmental changes since 1825, accounting for the sustained chaos of its troubled capital.

El Prado, La Paz. Mercado Lanza can be seen to the right, overlooking Plaza San Francisco.

Following the tour, we attempted to find some of the local delicacies in the central markets but to no avail; eventually, we settled for a nice but unspectacular meal in the restaurant in Hostal Naira. Feeling adventurous, we boarded a cramped trufi heading for Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), 10km from the city centre. In contrast to the one in the Atacama Desert, this Valle de la Luna consists of surreal spires formed from the cratered mountainside. This site is not a valley at all, but instead provides a mazy path through canyons, rock formations, and sprouting choma, the hallucinogenic cactus which grows in the area. Arriving near the closing time (i.e. 5pm) of the site itself, we were denied a view of the entire area, but our brief visit certainly left a strong impression.

Valle de la Luna at dusk, La Paz.

For dinner, we were able to reserve a table at Gustu, one of the best restaurants in South America, located in the wealthy neighbourhood of Zona Sur. Neighbouring Peru may hold the gustatory limelight, but Gustu has brought gastronomy into La Paz and Bolivia. Founded by Claus Meyer, also the co-founder of the world-famous restaurant Noma, Gustu emphasises the use of Bolivian ingredients from sustainable sources. Interestingly, Gustu has expanded its horizons to beyond a simple restaurant, transforming into a culinary school and empowering impoverished locals to become chefs, waitstaff, and sommeliers.

Tasting menu at Gustu, La Paz.

Seated in the wooden dining room is adorned with vibrant decorations hanging from the high ceiling, we opted for the seven-course tasting menu, arriving on beautiful slates and ceramic bowls, paired with Bolivian wine and cocktails. We were not disappointed by the dining experience. The tasting menu was a lesson in the diversity of Bolivian ingredients and landscapes. Our favourite dishes included a black quinoa-like grain served in a milky reduction, a “Bolivian carbonara” consisting of shredded palm heart, alpaca charque and, a perfectly cured egg yolk, and strips of slow-cooked lamb in an orange jus. For those who are interested, I urge you to read this New Yorker article outlining the origins and philosophy of Gustu. A tour through the kitchens and preparation rooms by the maitre d’ was the perfect bookend to our stay in La Paz.

The alleys of El Alto cascade down towards the city centre of La Paz.

There is no doubt that La Paz is still a city of struggle and strife. Compared to its more developed neighbours of Chile and Peru, Bolivia is relatively impoverished and unstable. Today, however, with the advent of tourism, this landlocked country is certainly becoming more prosperous, and visitors are treated to an intriguing mix of the past and the future.

The sun sets over the distant Mount Illimani, overlooking La Paz.

Accommodation: we reserved and paid for three rooms in Hotel LP Columbus, near the city centre. Upon our arrival, the receptionists informed us that the hotel had been overbooked despite our early reservations. They instead sent us to El Dorado Hotel. This was all said flippantly and as though it was normal procedure for the LP company (or the hotel manager) to double-book rooms.

It turned out that the hotel only arranged our alternative accommodation one week prior to our arrival and did not contact us for our agreement. This speaks greatly to the inconsideration of LP Columbus and reflects extremely poorly on the LP brand.

For our time in La Paz, we stayed at El Dorado Hotel, which, while in the city centre, was subpar. Areas such as the windows and heaters were visibly dusty and may not have been regularly cleaned by the housekeeping staff. The duvet and duvet covers were clearly of mediocre quality and the Wi-Fi was often unstable. The experience was not worthy of a three-star hotel.

Panoramic view of Valle de la Luna

Food: La Paz was the only portion of our itinerary which enabled us to experience varied aspects of Bolivian cuisine. In general, Bolivian cuisine is highly diverse – staples include varieties of potatoes, corn, and beans, much like many Andean regions. These staples would often be dried or preserved, giving rise to a richer and more complex taste profile compared to their counterparts. Some of the most iconic food items include salteñas and empanadas, pastries which often contain meat, potatoes, or beans. Much like our experiences in San Pedro de Atacama, food in La Paz tends to be meat- and carbohydrate-heavy, with portion sizes being much larger than anticipated, so check with the waitstaff to prevent over-ordering!

The interior of Gustu

With regards to restaurants, we can definitely recommend both Luciernagas and Gustu for Bolivian cuisine. Luciernagas serves affordable and traditional Bolivian home cooking, with large portions of authentic dishes and freshly squeezed juices on offer (approximately 200 HKD / 20 GBP per person).

Gustu, on the other hand, offers a relaxed fine-dining experience and provides a fascinating cross section of different combinations of Bolivian ingredients in both food and beverage (approximately 600 HKD / 60 GBP per person). I heartily recommend the tasting menu at Gustu accompanied by the beverage pairing (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options are available). I would also suggest spending time in the central markets – such as Mercado Rodriguez and Mercado Lanza – in order to sample truly authentic local food.

Views of downtown La Paz, against the backdrop of basic housing in the surrounding Altiplano.

Getting Around: Travelling in La Paz is very different to other big cities. While certain neighbourhoods of the city can be explored on foot, the best way to get around is by taxi. Make sure to hail only taxis which have matching serial numbers on the sides of the vehicle and a yellow sticker on the windshield; these are the only genuine registered taxis.

A much cheaper alternative of travelling throughout the city is via trufis (minibuses). However, be prepared to be crammed into a small van with others and to listen out for your destination, often rattled off by fare collectors hanging out the side of the minibuses.

Finally, in lieu of a subway system, Mi Teleférico span the length of the city. This option is often used by commuters to venture down into the city centre from El Alto. The cable cars themselves are in excellent condition, and span most of La Paz, with the yellow and green lines offering a spectacular view of the city and the surrounding Andes.

General Tips:
– La Paz can be explored on foot, but take care crossing roads and avoid busy regions during peak hours. Avoid travelling alone or at night if possible.
– As with all big cities, there will almost certainly be pickpockets, who will invariably target tourists. Stay together as a group, and always be wary of your surrounding and your possessions, and leave most of your valuables in your hotel.

A statue of the Bolivian hero Pedro Domingo Murillo, a signatory of the Bolivian declaration of independence.

– Protests and strikes are common in Bolivia, and you will be most affected in La Paz. Be sure to check travel alerts, for example on the UK government website, prior to travelling. While there is not much to do if your travels coincide with such incidents, be sure to avoid conflict areas.
– Other attractions in and around La Paz include El Alto’s sprawling Thursday market and Tiwanaku, a UNESCO world heritage archaeological site just outside of La Paz. For the more adventurous, opt for a half day hike to Muela del Diablo, or cycle down Death Road (Yungas Road). La Paz is also home to a budding modern art scene, and galleries such as esART and Gota de Agua offer modern art and Bolivian folklore music respectively. Do your research on the availability of visiting certain attractions, as some are closed on certain days.

Click here for the next part of our itinerary as we venture towards Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world!

This post is contributed by Terence and edited by LonKonger.
Photo Credits: Yinnie Tong, Catherine Yuen, and Keith Chan

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